I apologize for the blogging hiatus, but the past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. Since my last post I’ve taken two separate Chernobyl excursions, flown in a creaky, Soviet-era Yak-42 airliner, swam in the Black Sea, and explored a secret Soviet submarine factory. I’ve seen so much and done so much that I’ll never be able to sum up my array of experiences in a lifetime of blog entries... Still, I will try my best to give you an idea of what I did during this ultra-packed stretch of my Ukraine trip through words and lots of pictures.
Let’s start from the beginning. On August 8, I went on my first excursion to Chernobyl. RCRM booked the trip, so my companions were all scientists and doctors from the hospital. The excursion was arranged by the Chernobyl NPP, and our guide was a plant employee who spoke Russian.
My second trip came three days later, on August 11. This excursion was arranged by a great local travel agency called Solo East. It was less official than my other tour, and more geared towards English-speaking tourists. This tour was better in many ways because the guide took more risks to show us places to take photos. However, I had to pay about $145 for the Solo East tour, whereas the official tour was free. I will dedicate this first post to my official tour, and the next post to my Solo East tour.
The weather was appropriately dreary the morning of August 8. From the hospital, we packed into a van and drove north for about 2 hours until we reached the first checkpoint.
This gate marks the entrance to the 30-km Exclusion Zone. A stone-faced guard examined all of our passports before granting us entry. From there, we drove for another 30 minutes until we arrived in the village of Chernobyl (not to be confused with the Chernobyl NPP, which is about 10 km away), where we stopped briefly for snacks. Chernobyl is a functioning town, but most of its inhabitants are NPP workers who only live there temporarily during working shifts. It’s technically supposed to be an evacuated village, but there are about 100 “self settlers” who returned after the accident against the wishes of the government.
From Chernobyl village, we made our way down the road to the Chernobyl NPP.
We drove around a bit to snap photos of the damaged reactor, above. Then, we pulled into the plant’s administrative offices (which were located in the same row of buildings as the damaged reactor… yikes) for a lecture.
In the model above, you can see the four reactors that were once operational at the Chernobyl NPP; all of them are contained in that long building in the center, with the damaged reactor #4 on the far right (encased in the black shelter).
After the lecture, and to my complete surprise, we drove right up to the damaged reactor.
There was a small museum there, which contained a very neat and painstakingly detailed model of the damaged reactor.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the original reactor sarcophagus was only meant to last 20 years, so it has many structural problems today, 21 years after the accident. Our guide described some of the work that has already been done to stabilize the reactor. On the bottom half of the poster below, you can see two diagrams of the shelter wall: a “before” and an “after” shot.
As you can see from the drawing on the left, the shelter’s scaffolding was not supporting this particular wall very well, so the weak wall had to bear most of the weight of the roof. This situation was very dangerous since one heavy rainstorm could potentially increase the weight of the roof enough to crumble the wall. In the diagram to the right, you can see the changes they made to translate the weight off of the wall and onto the scaffolding. Fixes like this one are only temporary, however, which is why the Ark is being constructed.
Above is a wall poster from the museum about the SIP project, a.k.a. Ark building project.
We next made our way to the abandoned city of Pripyat, located 2 km from the plant. This was my favorite part of the trip. Pripyat had been a bustling young town of about 50,000 people (mostly NPP workers and their families) when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After the accident, it was completely abandoned. During evacuations, people were told to bring with them only their money and important papers as they would be returning in 3 days. Thus, everything was left in Pripyat as it had been in 1986; only Mother Nature and a few looters have disturbed the town since then. It was a haunting site.
One of the women in our group was a Pripyat evacuee in 1986. We explored her old apartment together:
We also went into the city’s cultural center. It was disturbing to see the amount of destruction 20 years can do.
When I was in Pripyat, I couldn't help imagining myself in a sci-fi scenario. I felt as if I had been thawed after being frozen for thousands of years, only to find that humans had mysteriously disappeared during this time, leaving just the ruins of human civilization in tact. I wonder how many more decades it will take until Pripyat is completely unrecognizable - 100 years? 500 years? It was a bizarre, unforgettable experience to be in Pripyat.
Before leaving the Exclusion Zone, we all endured a frightening few moments as we stepped into a body dosimeter. Fortunately, all of us registered "clear."
Stay tuned - I have a whole other version of this story to tell in my next post.